Is Funny A Gender Thing?

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I found myself saying something utterly woeful the other day. I was describing a book I’d read to a friend. “I think it’s for men,” I said to her. “I mean, it was good. But it didn’t grab me. So I think it was probably written for men.”

To my credit, I whacked myself in the face with a large fresh haddock after I said this, because it was an uncommonly stupid thing to say for someone who climbs on to a soapbox 48% of the time about how labels such as “women’s fiction” should be burned at the stake.

Unfortunately, it was also true.

The book was supposed to be funny. In fact, the reason I’d bought it, apart from the fact that it had been nominated for multiple prizes and won a few very serious ones, was because of the cover quote from the Irish Times. “So good,” it said. “So good, so funny, and so sad.”

That’s a book for me, says I to myself, I says. Funny and sad and good. That’s totally me, says I.

The Sisters Brothers

Anyway, I had just finished reading it. It was The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt. And it was good. Well, good-ish, but not great. The funny bits, it seemed to me, generally concerned horrific injuries, a walking corpse of a horse, general violence, and drunkenness (the hungover part, at least). Which is all very well, but while it might raise a titter from some, I found my inner voice behaving like a pedantic German stereotype, with such thoughts as “oh yes, I see what he did there,” and “Ah. This part is humorous, because it is technically comical that his leg is falling off.”

A similar thing happened with Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, another apparently marvellous example of literary humour. My reaction was nine parts “I see that this is meant to be funny,” and one part “I don’t get it”. It was, literally, no parts “Hahaha”.

This made me wonder about what is funny to men and women. Are our funny bones wired differently? Does the female pelvis vibrate to a different frequency of humour? Is, for example, slapstick and injury-based violence more humorous to men than to women?


OMG, non-gender specific LOLs are like totes hilairs

Most Irish people I know who like performance comedy in general, and stand-up in particular, like the same comedians, no matter their gender, or the gender of the comedian. A standard Irish comedy audience doesn’t appear to favour one sex over another. But when it comes to films, the audience is split. Is it the same with books – or to be more specific, that rare breed of literary fiction which is supposed to be funny?

The Hangover was hilarious, apparently. But some of us had to be told that, and we were also told that the reason we didn’t get how much of a rip-roaring, vomitous laugh it was, was because it was a lad’s movie. Bridesmaids was supposed to bridge the great divide, but it was harder to get men to go and see it, because it was a woman’s comedy, and so, couldn’t be funny.

As someone who doesn’t set out to write funny, but has sometimes fooled readers into thinking that her writing can raise the odd ‘lol’, I find that thinking about what is funny, generally kills the joke.

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Recently, this has become more of a problem. What I’m writing at the moment should be for a general audience; community humour, so to speak, about people in general, and small towns in particular. If I were marketing it, I would totally say it was non gender-specific.

But I’m not marketing it, I’m still trying to write it. And I have a niggling feeling sometimes that it might be woman funny, not man funny, no matter how much I’d like to bridge the great divide. And I don’t think I can change that, because sometimes I come across a book like The Sisters Brothers, and I find myself thinking that there is a certain type of literary humour for men, and I disassociate myself from it.

Whilst I will continue on fighting for the right to not categorise what I write as women’s fiction, I’m afraid I might lose this other battle. I’m afraid that funny might be a gender issue, when it comes to literary fiction at least. But let it be known that I am open to someone poking fun at the notion. Or, for that matter, at me.

What do you think? Is there a gender divide when it comes to literary humour – or is it a more cultural, geographic thing?

  43 comments for “Is Funny A Gender Thing?

  1. September 28, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    The Sisters Brothers isn’t funny and nor is it good. A total yawn, in fact. Mind you, that’s a man’s view–yours may differ.

    I went into the newsagent’s shop and asked, “Do you have the Psychic Times?” “You tell me,” he said. Now THAT’s funny.


    • September 28, 2014 at 2:39 pm

      Well, there you go then! Although The Sisters Brothers won so many prizes, all citing its funniness, I got terribly confused. Perhaps the question I should have been asking was: “Have the judges of literary prizes any sense of humour at all, at all?”

      Which makes it a good time to say that I loved Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost For Words which was, in my opinion, quite mirthful indeedy. But you already knew I was going to say that. Incidentally, if psychics go to a stand-up show, do they laugh before they go in, and spend the show fuming at all the old material?


  2. September 28, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    In my opinion (which nobody wants, but everyone gets, like socks at Christmas) men tend to enjoy the kind of comedy which is physical or visual, while women like banter, humorous remarks and sarcasm. My OH thinks anyone saying ‘c**t’ is automatically hilarious, while I laugh at wordplay and clever humour and muse on the future of our relationship. Maybe humour is like sex – all in the mind for women, and legs in the air visuals for men?


    • September 28, 2014 at 3:17 pm

      But I love socks at Christmas! Especially BIG ones. Phnarr phnarr, etc.

      You make a great point there. Comedy, like relationships, is so often about the visual versus the vernacular, isn’t it.


      • blimprider
        September 28, 2014 at 3:42 pm

        I have to go with Jane on this one. The field of psychology is awash in studies purporting to show that women use different parts of their brains, or more or less of their brains (depending on the agenda of the studier), and you can see it most frequently in the sexual arena, where women like to read stories while men like to watch videos (and the less “story,” the better). Go to a rom-com, sit where you can look back at the audience, and marvel at the women laughing and crying while the men who have been dragged there, kicking and screaming, constantly look at their watches. Go to an action/adventure film and marvel at the exact opposite. But I don’t have to look any further than my own extended family, and everyone’s interactions with the grandchildren; I have never heard a woman say, “Pull my finger!” And the grandkids? The little boys think that’s hilarious, and roll on the floor laughing. The little girls roll their eyes and groan. I think you’ve hit it right on the head.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. September 28, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    I don’t think humour is gender specific. I think it’s people specific. I laugh with brothers and male friends about stuff that causes Rich to make his scrunched-up confused face. Then there’s stuff me n’ Rich laugh at together that my brother would never get.
    One’s man’s veggie burger is another man’s waste of a bundy.
    Or whatever the phrase is.
    (Note you may or may not find that last sentence amusing… Rich is making his scrunched-up face again.)


    • September 28, 2014 at 3:40 pm

      Ah yes, the scrunched-up face… I am a friend to it, but it is no friend to me. For the record, the last sentence was amusing. But if you’d said one WOMAN’s veggie burger… now that would be an ecumenical matter 😉


  4. September 28, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Writing humor is really, really hard. I am usually very wary of “humorous prose” books. Reminds me of a friend who used to work for a comedy TV show and the writers would gather around at the end of each day to hear each other’s bits. Resounding praise was summed up in the single exclamation, usually delivered dead-pan: “Funny.” I prefer humor to come out of a set of circumstances in a story, not be the tether pulling me towards a pouch line, but that’s just me.


    • September 28, 2014 at 3:42 pm

      I agree, Richard – humour isn’t a funny business.
      Perhaps these books I’m talking about were killed by their own praise: as soon as they were called funny, they ceased to be even vaguely witty.


  5. September 28, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Over here in the USA I find that men like slapstick, including The Three Stooges, and I don’t know a single woman who enjoys them. Groucho Marx, on the other hand, was delightful. I have occasionally like an action film, and don’t like most romantic comedies, but give me wordplay and I’m happy.


    • September 28, 2014 at 7:02 pm

      I don’t think action movies are really targeting men – men and women seem to like them in equal measure. But I’m the same as you with slapstick. I just don’t appreciate it at all!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. September 28, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    I don’t think humour is based on gender, but on experience. I probably wouldn’t find jokes about childbirth funny because I’ve never given birth and never will (unless science comes up with some excruciating anatomical development.)

    But then if the childbirth joke is based around the subject of pain I might find it funny because I’m no stranger to pain.

    What is certain is that the moment someone says to me ‘this is funny’ I’m pretty certain I’m not going to laugh. If a novel is described as a comedy or dark humour, fine; when it’s described as hilarious, well, I’ll be the judge of that.



    • September 28, 2014 at 5:34 pm

      Childbirth jokes? CHILDBIRTH? Jeez. I’ve never heard one and I hope I never do.


    • September 28, 2014 at 7:05 pm

      I agree that a lot of humour is based on experience – but that doesn’t explain why slapstick seems generally to be appreciated more by men than women. Or why I laughed myself sick once over a joke about German motorcycle couriers, come to think of it!


      • September 28, 2014 at 7:14 pm

        I wish to hear this joke, please.


        • September 28, 2014 at 7:31 pm

          Ah. As soon as I typed that, I knew I’d have to let someone down. It was the way the comedian told it, you see. I couldn’t do it justice and it was part of a whole routine. Still, my entire torso hurt afterwards, which is always a good sign.


  7. September 28, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    I would say that yes, in general, men tend to find slapstick humor, bodily function humor, horrific injury humor, etc. more funny than women. I think, however, that’s a result of our society — how we were brought up really makes a difference in what we find funny. I know girls who think toilet humor is hilarious. I think it’s disgusting. It’s like how you can turn on a comedy show produced in a different country (like, Korea or Japan or something) and the audience is laughing uproariously and you’re sitting there going “huh?”. I believe what you find funny is based on where you grew up and how you were raised. I could be wrong, but that’s what I’ve found 🙂


    • September 28, 2014 at 11:41 pm

      Thanks, Michelle. I’m now thinking it also might depend on what age we are. Just ask a kid who sees somebody fall over!


  8. September 28, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    I enjoyed reading this! I will admit that I did this the other day, too. I called the film ‘Let’s be Cops’ a bloke’s film! That wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it, though. It made me laugh. The jokes in it just felt like they were directed at guys.

    I think what you find funny depends on what mood you’re in and how you were raised, rather than what your gender is 🙂


    • September 28, 2014 at 11:42 pm

      Yep, I think we can tell immediately when jokes are targeted elsewhere. I seem to be out of the firing line for a lot of movies…


  9. September 28, 2014 at 11:50 pm

    Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.


  10. September 29, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Good question, good replies. I write for 8-12 year olds and manage to amuse both boys and girls pretty equally, but… yeah… slapstick, cartoon “violence” and references to body parts and functions will generally make boys laugh soonest (and I think it’s inherent in the genes, not conditioned; as with boy’s interest in big machines and rough-housing, it’s too widespread and starts too early in life for the latter to be the cause). I’ve not noticed a specific humour trigger for the girls however. Do you think there is one? Girls and boys both seem to love tricks of language, changes of perception, creatures being naughty in a cute way etc.


    • September 29, 2014 at 11:53 am

      That’s fascinating, Ed, to see what makes kids laugh instinctively. There was a comedy festival for kids on in Dublin a few months back, with stand-up specifically for children. I didn’t go (despite my mental age) but would have loved to see what they reckon made kids laugh – if anyone had the answer to this question, they would. Perhaps they’d have an insight into the gender/laugh trigger issue too (assuming they think there even is one…)


      • September 29, 2014 at 12:28 pm

        Oh wow, stand-up comedy for kids… I wish I’d seen that. At schools in the UK, I typically do a 75 minute set for audiences of 100-200, which is performance storytelling woven about encouragement & ideas for reading/writing. They spend a lot of time laughing and then they buy lots of my books… And then we have creative sessions where we make up stories together, which are usually hilarious… so maybe I get close to stand-up, in a controlled manner!


        • September 29, 2014 at 2:31 pm

          Sounds to me like whatever it is, you’re getting it right, Ed 😉


  11. September 29, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    Hmm, really interesting conundrum. My husband and I both laughed out loud when reading The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion) and way bak there was Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but I rarely read a novel that I can confidently pass over to him to read. Yet we certainly laugh over the same articles in The Guardian or The Oldie. On the whole I find deliberate comedy uninviting… though I love the Monty Python songs. Sorry, thinking out loud, but getting nowhere here. I am resistant to the idea that humour is gender-based, but I would accept that culturally it may have become so. This is not a Good Thing, keep fighting.
    I am not a funny writer, and most people assume that my readers will be women, but when I count the ones I know it is equally divided between genders.


    • September 29, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      I think the general assumption is often that men are read equally by both genders, but women write for women, with a few notable exceptions (such as Hilary Mantel or Margaret Atwood). The mere idea bugs me intensely, but what can you do?


  12. October 1, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    I think men and women really do often see the world differently and so we have different ideas of what is ‘funny’ – a very interesting discussion here, Tara!


    • October 1, 2014 at 10:05 pm

      Thanks, Christy! That’s more or less what I think too…


  13. October 4, 2014 at 4:53 am

    (A week behind on blogs, trying to catch up…!)

    I think men and women find different things funny, but much of that is just how they were raised. We learn humor along with language and other behaviors at very young ages. (There may be some inherent differences along visual/verbal lines, but if so, they’re very small.) The rest of it is personality — I have tons of (male and female) friends who loved Bridesmaids, but I didn’t think any of it was funny, except in that “Ah. This is humorous.” way. (Or, y’know, the “Why is everyone laughing? I guess something in this scene was funny…” way.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • ED WICKE
      October 4, 2014 at 1:46 pm

      Here’s a thought. If gender differences for humour are predominantly “learned”, why are the boys learning so differently from the girls? I know a lot of carefully gender-neutral parents who see the same phenomenon as the rest of society: their boys act and react differently from their girls.

      Liked by 1 person

      • October 4, 2014 at 2:40 pm

        No child is raised in a vacuum, no matter how careful their parents are. I internalized a lot of things my parents never taught me, for instance. But I do allow that there are biological differences, I just think they’re pretty minor based on the studies I’ve read comparing the differences at different ages. I’m no expert, though.

        Liked by 1 person

        • October 4, 2014 at 4:10 pm

          I’m obviously political, because I agree with both of you. At different stages of my life I think I’ve had typically male and female reactions to certain types of humour. I think it’s depended very much on who I was hanging around with at the time, whether the group was mostly male or female. The need to fit in with peers can trump everything else.

          Liked by 1 person

  14. October 7, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Hi Tara!
    I reposted your blog on my site today and received this comment from a follower – just thought I’d pass it along for you 🙂

    I think humor is more of a cultural, geographic thing. For example, British humor is very, VERY different from American humor. You can’t generalize about “men’s humor” or “women’s humor,” because some men might find slapstick funny, but many of us men don’t find it funny at all. Do you consider “The Three Stooges” to be men’s humor? Maybe to some men, but I’m a man, and I don’t find The Three Stooges or similar slapstick to be at all funny.
    ~David Harten Watson


    • October 7, 2014 at 10:24 pm

      Thanks M.J.! What do you think yourself, though?


    • October 8, 2014 at 9:30 am

      I think it’s partially true about the geographic divide. I’m from the USA but have lived most of my time in the UK & I perceive the main difference in USA/UK humour to be how the two sides handle irony… and I suppose there is an English (not necessarily British) predilection for puns!

      I’m less certain about whether generalisation is wrong… Surely there’s a difference between on the one hand stereotyping (where people are assumed to meet a predefined pattern) and – on the other – the recognition that the analysis of many groupings (eg by gender) will show statistically significant differences. EG – men are on average taller than women: that’s a fact, and it doesn’t arise from parents feeding boys more than they feed girls. Our different chromosomes lead to all manner of differences in body structure and function, including the hormonal pool our brains are soaked in 24/7; so it shouldn’t be a surprise that gender affects our psychology as well as our physiology.

      The Three Stooges were just crass!

      Liked by 1 person

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